Nicolas Cage: a life in film

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To celebrate the release of his latest movie, 'Knowing', Time Out takes a look at the enduring box office appeal of Nicolas Cage

Ever since his very earliest appearances in showy art-house claptrap ‘Rumble Fish’ and the dayglo mallrat opera ‘Valley Girl’, Nicolas Cage has never gone back on an overtly implied vow to remain nothing less than committed, experimental and occasionally loopy, both in terms of performance and in his ever more eccentric choice of projects.

Yet despite the lack of traditional matinee idol looks, an often tangential approach to the script at hand and that schizoidal selection process, Cage has somehow parlayed his ‘bipolar hipster doofus’ persona into big, big box office and become far more than his questionable parts. But how did this funny-looking, gangly fellow end up facing off against John Travolta in groovy, big budget shootouts while careers of his peers withered, stagnated or went horribly wrong (Rob Lowe, we’re looking at you)?

Gilded Cage

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‘Is this wrong?’ 'Peggy Sue…'

Born into the sprawling Coppola clan, Nicolas admirably changed his name early doors to avoid charges of nepotism. Since his entry into the biz coincided with Uncle Francis’s commercial meltdown, it’s uncertain whether he need have bothered, but it did at least announce that Cage was his own man. His turn as the high-handed Smokey in ‘Rumble Fish (1983) is notable in retrospect solely for its sobriety, but as the unpredictable Randy in vacuous teen pap ‘Valley Girl’ (also 1983) clues started to emerge as to his eventual peculiarities. Electing to have two teeth pulled to assist his portrayal of an injured Vietnam War vet in Alan Parker’s solid but grossly manipulative ‘Birdy’ (1984) suggested the boy was taking it all a bit too seriously. He was already all over the dial, but somehow harmonised his strange frequencies for baby-boomer time-travel romance ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ (’86), delivering a deft comic performance of bridled lunacy.

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'Raising Arizona'

Raising Cain



1987 found him essaying wooden-handed New York baker Ronny Cammareri in Oscar-baiting Cher vehicle ‘Moonstruck’ and the cosmically inclined sneak-thief HI McDunnough in the Coen brothers’ peerless ode to trailer-park contentment, the family unit and turbocharged yodelling, ‘Raising Arizona’. In the former he looked put-upon and uncomfortable, in the latter he looked put-upon and so at home that they could have redirected his mail. It was a sign that during the early stages of his career, the big lunk put the weird before the wedge.



Weird on Top

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Van Dyke parks - 'Zandalee'
To fully explore Cage’s batshit performance in 1989’s ’Vampire’s Kiss’ would require a whole other column, so let’s move on to arguably his most iconic role, that of Sailor Ripley in David Lynch’s ‘Wild at Heart’ (1990). Part psychodrama, part road movie and entirely brilliant, the film itself has aged better than Cage’s performance, which is obvious and uncontrolled. It’s a day at the beach, however, compared to witnessing him being acted off the screen by Judge Reinhold in straight-to-vid eroto-thriller ‘Zandalee’ (1990). 1990 also saw him try his arm at a gung-ho action picture with the gratuitously dull ‘Top Gun’-with-helicopters malarkey of ‘Fire Birds’ – a straight up and down popcorn flick devoid of po-mo asides or self-reflexive charm that would hallmark Cage’s later genre forays and that has dated as badly as a calendar.

‘I Am Normal!’



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I’m with stupid - 'Trapped In Paradise'
1994 marks a pivotal moment in Cage’s career. He was 30 by now and would seem to have realised that the excesses of youth might not continue to serve him so well. In playing a surly Secret Service agent (‘Guarding Tess’), a happy-go-lucky beat cop (‘It Could Happen To You’) and a lovable schlub (‘Trapped In Paradise’) he appeared to be attempting to convince audiences – and moreover himself – that he could ‘do’ normal. It was ironic then that a performance that harked back to the most affected and mannered highlights of his early years would be the one that snagged him an unexpected but deserved Oscar…

Gongs and Geld

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In the drink - 'Leaving Las Vegas'
A frank and captivating meditation on bitter acceptance versus sweet rejection, ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ (1995) sees Cage as a terminal alcoholic flirting with redemption and serves as a dramatic companion piece to ‘Raising Arizona’, in that it is a film that would have almost certainly failed without his presence. With the Oscar in his back pocket, Cage did what every self-respecting award-winner does and immediately cashed-in on critical kudos by signing on for a series of bonecrushing blockbusters. Luckily, however, he was canny enough to star in some of the most cleverly framed and well-put together actioners of recent times with ‘The Rock’ (1996), ‘Con Air’ and ‘Face/Off’ (both 1997). While the suspicion lingers that he was promoted to action-hero status simply because a vacancy came up and no one else was around, he made a fine fist of all three. He over-egged this particular brand of mustard with ‘Gone In Sixty Seconds’ (1999), but by then he’d taken his eye off the ball in favour of crepuscular guff like ‘Bringing Out the Dead’ and ‘8mm’ (both 1999). He’d done the weird stuff, bagged the Oscar and made a fortune; time to turn to pastures new.

Try Anything!

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‘Shuddupayaface!’ 'Captain
Corelli's Mandolin'
The turn of the millennium saw Cage floundering. No one could argue with the receipts from sickly Xmas fable ‘The Family Man’ (2000) but his pair of ethnically-biased WWII outings, ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ (2001) and ‘Windtalkers’ (2002) confused as many people as they disappointed, while all too few saw his fine directorial debut ‘Sonny’ (2002). Had the art-house goons given up on him at the same time as the action crowd were scratching their heads at the perversity of his recent output? It was a propensity to fall between stools neatly summed up in Ridley Scott’s ‘Matchstick Men’ (2003). Cage plays an obsessive-compulsive con man in a thoroughly redundant caper film that has none of the smarts of critical darlings ‘The Grifters’ or ‘The Spanish Prisoner’, yet delivers nowhere near as much bang for your buck as ‘The Sting’ or even Guy ‘Mine’s a large one!’ Ritchie’s ‘Snatch’.

A National Treasure

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Bow-hunting skills - 'The Weather Man'
But just when it seemed that Cage was consigned – like Bruce Willis before him – to see out his career second-guessing former glories, he somehow happened upon the rarest bird in the Hollywood battery farm – the Franchise. The combination of spoon-fed, pre-school plotlines and tired father-to-son pioneer bullshit ensured that the ‘National Treasure’ films hit a cash-dollar artery with the US cinemagoer, but the unimagined riches that ensued (Cage’s Saturn Films also produced) did nothing to sate Cage’s apparent obsession for toplining scripts from Tinseltown’s very bottomest drawer. The glum comedy of ‘The Weather Man’ (2005) is the best of a bad recent bunch that includes pointless remakes of ‘The Wicker Man’ (2006) and ‘Bangkok Dangerous’ (2008), a hamstrung superhero outing as ‘Ghost Rider’ (2007) and the monumentally daft Philip K Dick adaptation ‘Next’ (2007).With the sub-Shyamalan sudoku-based puzzler ‘Knowing’ currently fugging up our silver screens, we can only hope that Cage takes the golden opportunity to let it all hang out offered by ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’ later this year. It may well be his last chance to remind those of us who still care that – even in the gonzo company of director Werner Herzog and co-stars Val Kilmer and Brad Dourif –nobody does crazy quite like Cage.

Author: Adam Lee Davies


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